Australian Open organisers have denied that world No 1 Novak Djokovic has benefited from “special favour” after being granted a medical exemption to play in the opening Grand Slam of 2022 despite not being vaccinated against Covid-19.
Government officials in Victoria state, which hosts the Australian Open, had been adamant for months that only vaccinated players or those with an exemption granted by an expert independent panel would be able to play the tournament.
Defending champion Djokovic — a nine-time winner at Melbourne Park — has not spoken publicly about his vaccination status.
Tournament director Craig Tiley said 26 unvaccinated players and support staff had applied for exemption, with only a “handful” granted.
“We made it extra difficult for anyone applying for an application to ensure it was the right process and to make sure the medical experts deal with it independently,” Tiley told Channel Nine’s The Today Show.
“There has been no special favour or special opportunity granted to Novak Djokovic or any tennis player.
“There’s been a process that goes above and beyond the normal process for everyone.”
The Australian Open is scheduled to begin on January 17. Reasons for Djokovic being permitted to compete will remain private, according to Tiley.
“In this case an exemption was granted on grounds which are personal medical information, which we do not receive,” he added. “It is up to that applicant to disclose what those grounds were.”
Criteria listed by the Australian Technical Advisory Group as permissible reasons for a medical exemption range from acute major medical conditions to any serious adverse event attributed to a previous dose of Covid-19 vaccine.
A possible explanation is that Djokovic has contracted coronavirus for a second time at some point in the past six months, having previously caught it during his much-criticised Adria Tour event in Belgrade in 2020.
That would negate the need for vaccination, according to rules published last year by one of two independent medical panels involved in the decision.
The build-up to the season’s first grand slam has been dominated by whether Djokovic, chasing a record 21st Grand Slam, would compete.
Speculation was heightened after he pulled out of the Serbia team competing at the ATP Cup in Sydney without explanation.
On Tuesday, the 34-year-old Serbian posted on Instagram that he was “heading down under with an exemption permission”.
The news was later confirmed in a statement from the Australian Open.
Djokovic's 20 Grand Slams
Public reaction to the news of Djokovic's exemption was overwhelmingly hostile. Stephen Parnis, a former vice-president of the Australian Medical Association, said the decision was appalling.
“I don't care how good a tennis player he is. If he's refusing to get vaccinated, he shouldn't be allowed in,” Parnis tweeted.
Tennis players tried to be diplomatic, with rising Australian star Alex de Minaur keeping his response short during a press conference after his ATP Cup match.
“It's very interesting. That's all I'm going to say,” de Minaur said.